POLITICS
05/07/2014 04:37 pm ET Updated May 09, 2014

In Ohio, A Former FBI Agent Searches For Ways To Unseat A Wily Republican Governor

ASSOCIATED PRESS

WASHINGTON -- Democrat Ed FitzGerald says the success of his underdog challenge to Ohio Gov. John Kasich could hang on a stray comment made by the Republican governor almost a year ago.

"This is what I think may lose him the election. He hasn't said the economy has gotten better. He said it's a miracle," FitzGerald said in a recent phone interview, days before officially securing the Democratic nomination on Tuesday.

Set aside the fact that Kasich's more recent comment was about the state's budget, not its economy. Kasich made the remark last year, when he announced that he had brought up the state government's rainy-day fund to a balance of $1.5 billion. (Three years before, the fund had stood at just 89 cents.) Before that, however, Kasich had used the term "miracle" to refer to the state's economy more broadly.

FitzGerald, a 45-year-old former FBI special agent turned prosecutor, now the county executive in Cuyahoga County, is traveling the state of Ohio hitting Kasich for his "miracle" comment.

He told HuffPost that he has made a habit of asking for a show of hands during stump speeches, asking his audiences how many people believe that Ohio's economy is a "miracle."

"I have had a grand total of one person raise their hand in 14 months of traveling the state," FitzGerald said. "And after my speech was over I couldn't wait to talk to this guy. As it turns out, he did not speak English and did not know what the question was. True story. He just saw me raise my hand and thought he was supposed to raise his hand."

Ohio's unemployment rate has fallen almost three points since Kasich took office in 2011. It ticked slowly upward last year, hovering at or just above the national average. But in the first three months of 2014, it dropped almost a full point to 6.1 percent. The state has also added just over 200,000 jobs during the governor's three years in office, according to a recent report.

But FitzGerald argues this job recovery has not resulted in the same level of pay for many Ohioans. Jobs may have come back to the state, but they don't pay as well as they used to, he said.

"The unemployment rate has gone down in every state. The question is, what kind of economy are people actually experiencing?" FitzGerald said. "The rate may have improved, but your quality of life hasn't."

"If you try to tell an audience in Ohio that the economy is great, they get angry, because they know it's not true," he said.

Kasich aides, however, are quick to note that wages in Ohio have grown at a rate of 9.4 percent since 2011, two points higher than the national average.

FitzGerald has been a candidate for a year now, but has had a difficult past few months. His first pick for lieutenant governor, state Sen. Eric Kearney, had to drop out last fall, just three weeks after he was picked, when reporters discovered Kearney owed the government hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid taxes. FitzGerald has also had trouble raising money and faces a huge cash disadvantage. Kasich began the year with almost $8 million in his campaign account, compared to just $1.4 million for FitzGerald.

Despite all that, the upstart Democrat trails Kasich -- who served in Congress for two decades, chaired the House Budget Committee for six years and is considered a possible presidential contender in 2016 if he wins reelection -- by less than five points in public polling.

FitzGerald told HuffPost that since the beginning of the year, he has raised $1.5 million, matching Kasich essentially dollar for dollar. Yet Kasich's massive cash edge means he can make a move to define FitzGerald over the airwaves any time he wants. When Kasich ran against Ted Strickland in 2010, the incumbent Democratic governor tried to bury Kasich with negative ads right around this time of the year. Kasich still won, but that was a Republican year and Strickland's money advantage was smaller.

Kasich's first TV ad was a bio spot reintroducing himself to voters as a salt-of-the-earth Ohioan, the son of a mailman and grandson of a coal miner. But FitzGerald said he expects the Kasich campaign, or the Republican Governors Association, to try to "pigeonhole me as a typical Democrat ... with typical tax-and-spend approaches."

FitzGerald's description of his own record as county executive strikes a decidedly conservative tone.

"I've been a reformer of government. I've made government smaller and more efficient. We've been pro-business. We haven't relied on a tax increase philosophy. They don't want that message to get out," he said.

But in his critique of Kasich's economic record and tax policies, FitzGerald criticizes trickle-down economics. "It is apparent now for all to see that John Kasich is representing millionaires and billionaires, and telling working families if the top is doing well, then you will eventually," he said in his remarks Tuesday night celebrating his nomination.

Kasich is not ignoring this line of attack. Rather, he appears fully aware of it, and has indicated that he does not intend to be Romney'd. A 60-second ad begins with the governor sitting, facing the camera, and saying, "Both of my parents always taught me that those people who were hurting are people that we need to help. We can't look the other way."

"I've always had sort of an underdog mentality about things, because, you know, because you have power or because you have wealth, so what? I mean, economic growth and prosperity shouldn't be limited to a few," Kasich says in the same ad. Both of Kasich's ads, produced by Rex Elsass' Strategy Group for Media, are effective spots.

FitzGerald's new choice of running mate has taken his candidacy in a more liberal direction. When FitzGerald announced Sharen Neuhardt as his new pick for lieutenant governor in January, The Columbus Dispatch referred to her as an "abortion-rights activist." Neuhardt is an attorney who led the fight against the abortion restrictions that Kasich signed into law last year.

FitzGerald said he and Neuhardt "weren't looking to change Ohio law as it stood before these recent restrictions were put into place."

"We're not trying to make [abortion] a central issue in the campaign, but I think the governor has made it an issue because of extreme provisions," he said.

On another hot topic, Obamacare, FitzGerald almost blurred the lines between himself and the governor.

"My basic approach is not that different than Governor Kasich's, though I describe it differently," said FitzGerald. He focused in particular on Kasich's decision to expand Medicaid: "Governor Kasich has supported many parts of Obamacare. He doesn't like to admit that, but he has," FitzGerald said.

The Democratic nominee displayed a lukewarm attitude toward the president's health care law. "There were parts of the law that I thought were a big improvement," he said, citing the ability for uninsured family members to obtain health coverage. "It doesn't mean the law is perfect. I think it was preferable to having insurance company bureaucrats decide who is insurable or not."

He did not quite sound ready to run ads embracing the law, unlike Rep. Allyson Schwartz, who is running in the Democratic primary for governor in Pennsylvania.

"I'm not going to say I'm going to take an identical approach to what Allyson Schwartz did," said FitzGerald, "because she voted on the law. I experienced it as a consumer."

FitzGerald's awkward positioning on the issue is a good indication that Kasich has outmaneuvered him politically in this case. But FitzGerald soon steered the conversation back to his favorite theme -- Kasich's handling of the economy, and a populist-sounding message about what FitzGerald characterizes as the governor's eagerness to help the wealthy at the expense of the poor.

He was also happy to offer his thoughts on Kasich's abilities as a retail politician.

"He has his moments where he's effective. He has his moments where he's not," FitzGerald said, before offering an in-depth analysis of the pros and cons of Kasich's folksiness, which can come as a surprise to those who haven't seen the governor speak before.

"He is extremely uneven [...] There are times when he is effective because he has a down-to-the-earth communication style," FitzGerald said. "There are times when I think he has been extremely abrasive and insulting, like when he brought together a group of state employees and basically just lectured them and kind of berated them in public and then told them this anecdote about a police officer that gave him a traffic ticket who was an idiot, and then had to apologize for that. He is not a disciplined communicator. So I would say it's a double-edged sword for him. Sometimes he connects with an audience and sometimes he really doesn't."

"We both have our own styles," FitzGerald continued. "Mine's a little bit different. But I've been successful in my elections and he's been successful in his and we'll see. I'm very much looking forward to the debates that we'll be having in the fall."

UPDATE: Language has been added to clarify that Kasich has used the term "miracle" to refer both to the growth of Ohio's budget and its economy more generally.

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